Thursday, December 06, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 33: Tom Bird

Coach Tom Bird
From age ten, I was the oldest male in our household of six.  Maybe for that reason, I have never liked submitting to authority; since I had to figure out how to do so many things myself, I resisted others telling me what to do. Though I have had many great bosses, mentors, and friends along the way (many of them described in this Gratitude series), I never had a coach until I met Tom Bird.

Tom walked into our offices at GlobalGiving five or six years ago, seemingly a random introduction from a friend.  At first, I tried to figure out what he wanted. He had worked at a big medical company, then become a successful entrepreneur who built and sold a thriving records management business.  After that, he went to Harvard Divinity School.

"How can I help you?" I asked.

"Well, I'm just trying to figure out a way to do some good," Tom replied simply.  "So I'm here just to get your advice on how to do that."

Over the next hour, it became clear that the ratio of Tom's (intelligence + wisdom)/ego was off the  charts.  Plus, I had rarely ever met someone that I just personally liked so much.  To be honest, I am a little bit of a loner, and though I know a lot of people I don't have a lot of close friends.  Almost immediately, I wanted to have Tom as a friend.

After he left, I told Mari she needed to meet him, and after she did, we both knew we had to get him on our board.  He was gracious enough to accept.  Since our founding board chair Dave Goldwyn was about to finish his term, we soon found ourselves at lunch with Tom, asking him - despite the short 'dating' period, to consider taking on the chairmanship.  He asked to think about it for a few days, did some due diligence, and said yes.

It is difficult to exaggerate the contributions Tom made to GlobalGiving while he was chair (he just stepped down this year, though he remains on the board).  He brought an extraordinary combination of enthusiasm and ideas, together with realism and practicality.  He coached us on how to prudently run a  growing business, but also at every turn he urged us not to be constrained by conventional wisdom and to, above all, focus on social impact.  "You are trying to change the world here," he would say.  "And that means that despite all obstacles and setbacks you have to keep the faith and press ahead."

Tom's insights, advice, and encouragement were all key drivers of the milestones we've celebrated over the past eighteen months: financial self-sustainability; $100+ million in funding facilitated; and nearly 7,000 projects funded in over 110 countries by 300,000 individual donors and a long list of some of the world's most innovative and socially-oriented companies.

Almost all athletes know they need a coach - someone whom they trust to push them, sometimes hard, to achieve greater performances than they could achieve on their own.  Many business and non-profit leaders feel that they can (or should) do it all on their own, and I used to be that way, too.  Fortunately, a few years back I found a coach -  a great one - in Tom Bird.  That made a huge difference in my life, and for that I am most grateful.


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Monday, November 05, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 32: Guy Pfeffermann

Guy Pfeffermann
Bill Drayton of Ashoka describes social entrepreneurs as people who "to the core of their being, [are] committed to serving the good of all."

Nothing better describes Guy Pfeffermann, but it took me years to realize it. I first met him at the World Bank in the mid-1990s, and I recall vividly how annoyed I was by his iconoclasm.

The bank, like many organizations, had a strong culture that dictated how we wrote, how we talked, and how we acted.  This culture guided and constrained the narratives we constructed in our work.  But in meetings Guy was constantly straying from these narratives, flouting the well-trodden and predictable analytical grooves (ruts) that scripted our discussions.  He insisted on using plain words instead of our jargon, he told seemingly pointless stories, and he had no reservations about laughing out loud at some absurdity.

From my point of view, this was annoying, because it impeded the flow and predictable outcome of the meetings, hence delaying our work.  It was all the more strange since Guy was the Chief Economist of the bank's private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.

Over time, Guy's determination to always look at the world with fresh eyes started to grow on me, but I was not totally won over. When Mari suggested that we ask Guy to be on our board at GlobalGiving in 2003, I was polite but skeptical.  Yet doing a start-up like GlobalGiving requires nothing more than a fresh set of eyes, and Guy's perspective became a strong guiding force for us in the following years.  When we struggled with business challenges, Guy was always the first to remind us why we had left the bank to start GlobalGiving in the first place.  I credit him with keeping us focused on our mission through rocky times.

Guy is proof that entrepreneurial ventures can come late in life.  In 2003, after he retired from the World Bank - where he had worked for nearly forty years! - he was not content to go quietly into a comfortable retirement.  During his career, he had noticed that students in the developing world had very poor access to good business training, so he decided to address this by creating and launching the Global Business School Network.  GBSN matches top-tier business schools in richer countries with ambitious business schools in poorer countries.

The other day, about fifteen years after we first me, Guy took me to lunch to discuss some of his own challenges with getting GBSN to the next level. I tried to help him in the same way he had helped me nearly a decade before. As we settled the bill and left the restaurant, I realized that there are few people in the world with whom I would rather have spent the last hour.  Guy has shown me what it's like to being committed, really committed, to serving the good of all.  And for that, I am very grateful.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 31: Peter Iver Kaufman

Peter Kaufman
"Excuse me, Professor, but is that tie 100% polyester or just 90%?"

Those were my first words to Peter Kaufman back in 1980.  My girlfriend thought he was the cat's meow, and she had dragged me to one of his religious studies classes at the University of North Carolina, where I was a sophomore. The class discussion was lively but seemed ridiculous to me. It had little to do with religion; Peter just kept badgering us about how we knew what we were saying was true.

The whole thing was incredibly irritating, and it was not helped by the tie Peter was wearing, which was shiny, wide, and garish.  Hence my wise-acre challenge to him at the end of class.

"What do you mean?" he exclaimed, and looked down at his tie, brushing at a stain.  "What's wrong with this?" he said and brushed at the stain a few more times.

"Well it looks like something from about 1968," I replied.

"Maybe it is, maybe I got it for my college graduation," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. And he brushed at it again.

And thus began my relationship with one of my greatest professors, mentors, and friends. Eventually I became a religious studies major (the most unlikely of majors for me), and he pushed, pushed, pushed me to do all sorts of crazy things, including traveling around the world one semester while taking all my courses on a self-study basis.

A few years ago, I got a call from an organization in Texas.  The director said, "We like the work you are doing at GlobalGiving, and we want to give an award to the person who taught you how to be an entrepreneur. Can you send us his name and bio?"

Without hesitation, I sent them Peter's bio, and after a few days they called me back.  "Are you sure you sent us the right person?  This seems to be a religious studies professor who has written books like Thinking of the Laity in Late Tudor England."

"Oh, don't be fooled by that," I replied.  "He only writes those things to jump through the hoops he needs to be a professor.  What he really does is bug the crap out of his students to convince them not to accept conventional wisdom, and to look at the world in different ways. Surely that is what entrepreneurship is all about, isn't it?"

They agreed and gave him the award.  Characteristically, Peter turned it down (or tried to - I never found out what happened).

Peter taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for thirty years, during which time he won so many teaching awards it got monotonous.  In 2008, the University of Richmond's Jepson School stole him away to become the George Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modin Professor of Leadership Studies.  Before leaving for Richmond, Peter decided to become a traditional entrepreneur himself at age 60-something, launching the Scholars Latino Initiative to advance the idea that all students, no matter their background, should be able to have access to a college education.

I have seen Peter a couple of times in the last few years and can confirm that his ties have changed - they are now only years rather than decades behind the current fashion, and they sport a much higher natural fiber content.  But one thing has not changed.  Peter is still his irascible self, urging his students, his peers, and above all himself to never accept the status quo, and to see the world in new ways.

Over the years, Peter has affected the lives of thousands of students - including mine, in fundamental ways - and the actions of those thousands of students have in turn improved the lives of hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of people.  For that, I am grateful - we should all be.



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Monday, August 13, 2012

My Taxi Driver Throw Me Out...

Tahmina Kohistani (Credit: The Telegraph, London)
Tahmina Kohistani is what this blog is all about:
“My taxi driver throw me out on the street when I told him I was training for Olympics,” said Tahmina Kohistani, Afghanistan’s only woman at the Games, in the halting English she had learned through mail-order language courses. “He said, ‘Get behind the man. You are disgrace to Muslim women.’ My coach fought other men outside the stadium where I train because they do not think I should run. But my country will remember me forever one day. They will see I am the right one and other girls will watch me and I will tell them, ‘Come, run with me. Run with me, Tahmina.’ ”
Who could fail to pull for this underdog?

(Full story.)

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 30: Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers
"F&%k, f&%k, f&%k...!"
On September 26, 2005, Steve Rogers joined GlobalGiving as Director of Engineering.  He picked up where Scott McLoughlin left off,  and there was good news and bad news.

The good news was that we were getting traction.  We had tens of thousands of users, and large partners (including innovative companies) were asking us to add more and more features.

The bad news was that we still did not have a lot of resources.  Steve had a couple of coders working with him, but good technical expertise was hard to come by in the Washington DC region in those days, especially at the rates we could pay at the time.

Like a contestant in one of those world's strongest men contests, Steve came in with a scowl and roar. He picked up an inhuman workload and seemed to toss it physically around the office.  (Someone told me one day Steve reminded him of Iorek Byrnison.)

Asking him to add a feature to site or fix a long-standing bug was always a dangerous proposition, eliciting a loud response that it was impossible, that it required ten people, that it would happen when hell froze over, and that no one understood anything about how tech worked.  Many on the team feared him, and some were scared to approach him.

Over the past seven years, Steve has touched over 2.1 million lines of code, presiding over extraordinary growth in traffic and functionality on the site.  When he took over, he realized that the only viable way forward was to retrofit our fledgling single engine airplane into a jumbo jet - while flying it! First he replaced the engines, then he lengthened the wings, then he added an entire new body to the jet.  All this without losing altitude, much less landing.

I will never forget the first day that I watched Marisa Glassman from our business partnership team approach Steve to ask for a new feature.  Some of her colleagues were crouched down behind their desks to avoid the expected shrapnel.  Instead, the two sat there talking quietly, and in the end Marisa walked calmly back to her computer and started working again.

In amazement, one of her colleagues asked what happened.  "He said he would try to get it done in the next two weeks," Marisa replied.  "Holy cow, how did that happen?" her colleague wondered.  "Oh, Steve's a real pussy cat; you just need to know how to handle him," Marisa said.

Marisa was right, Steve is a pussy cat, even if he can seemingly lift a thousand pounds.  One of Steve's colleagues, Kevin Conroy, says:
Although he probably doesn't want his ice hockey opponents to know it, he's one of the most caring guys you're likely to come across and is always looking for ways to make sure that everyone is taking care of themselves and their families in addition to getting their work done.
Because of this, Steve has been able to build a tech team second to none.  I admire his ability to find, motivate, and lead people more than I can say.  Kevin continues:
He's the reason that we can handle traffic spikes when we get a shout out on Oprah. Why our system doesn't crash when tens of thousands of people come to support Japan relief, and the reason why our tech team is among the best in the industry. His no-nonsense, results driven leadership inspires those who work for him.
Amen to that, brother.  And thank you, Steve.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 29: Scott_Mc

Scott_Mc
In the beginning was the Code, and the creator of the Code was Scott_Mc.

Scott McLoughlin, that is. The date was early 2003, and we were reeling. The first version of GlobalGiving, which we called DevelopmentSpace, was going nowhere fast. We had launched about a year earlier, and all of our hopes for viral adoption by millions of donors had proven to be naive. The first version of our site was good technically and had a lot of cool features, but the overall design was poor. We had few users, little throughput, and minimal revenue.

We knew the site needed major surgery, including changing the name to something people actually understood. But were running out of cash fast, and we could barely pay our skeletal staff, let alone afford any major changes to the sophisticated code powering our beta site.

It was incredibly dark days, and I could not see how we were going to make it. We searched around in desperation for someone who could help us on the tech side, and we found Scott McLoughlin, who someone told us was good. When I looked at his CV, I saw that he was a philosophy major in college, but he seemed to have done some decent technical work at a company he co-founded called Adrenaline.

Scott came in to meet us and looked at things and seemed terribly annoyed, but he agreed to help. He went into hibernation with part of the team for a week or two. And then he came in to the office one morning with a big smile on his face.

"Listen, when you are in a jam like this there is only one way forward," he proclaimed.

"What's that?" Mari and I replied.

"Bunt!" Scott said.

"What do you mean bunt?"

"Bunt means we come to grips with the fact that we can't support the old code, and so we just take it all down and start from scratch."

"From scratch?" I nearly screamed. We had spent the previous year pouring our hearts and soul into the existing code, which was costly and sophisticated. The idea of scrapping it was crazy.

"Yes, from scratch," Scott replied. "Working on the old code base will cost a fortune, and that's a fortune we don't have." I noticed he used the word we, which I liked. He continued: "So we are going to take it all down and start again and since we don't have any money we are just going to code the barest features that are critical for the site to take donations."

Scott was right. We could not afford to keep the old site even if we wanted to. So we gave him the green light, and he closeted himself with a couple of our young staff, including Edouard Valla, for several weeks. None of our staff had any real coding experience, but that didn't matter to Scott; he would teach them.They worked sporadic hours in intense bursts - usually very late at night. Edouard would sometimes complain that they could have gotten home earlier if Scott had not intermittently subjected them to long lectures on Wittgenstein, Hegel, and Spinoza, whose work seemed to bear no relation to what we were doing. But Scott and team delivered.

For the next year, we bunted.  And it worked.  We relaunched a painfully simple site under our new name, and we slowly began to attract users.  Over time, we built more features on top of that initial code but much of the DNA of "Bunt" remained in place over the years, even well after Scott left.  New tech guys, after poring over the code for a few days and seeing annotations by the main authors, would almost always ask: "Who the heck is this guy Scott_Mc? He's everywhere!"

Only in 2012 did our tech guys announce that the last of Scott_Mc's Code was gone. Yet most of our team has never met Scott, and few realize that GlobalGiving would probably not be around today without him.  Recently Forbes Magazine named us one of the top ten startups changing the world.  Today I want to salute and thank Scott, and to make sure the world knows that we could not have done it without him.

***

PS: Here are the very first lines of Code Scott wrote for us:

<!-- Begin of Content -->
<pre style="font-family: Georgia; font-size: 10pt; margin-left: 30pt">
The most promising site for direct international grantmaking is now easier to remember.
GlobalGiving.com is your source for some of the most innovative, high-impact development
projects on the planet.  And with the added transparency you get with GlobalGiving.com,
you know exactly where you donation is going and how much of it is getting there. </pre>
<font face="Georgia" size="4" color="#FFA500"><b>Give Globally, starting June 1, 2003</b></font>

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Monday, July 23, 2012

If You Don't Like Gay Marriage...


Yesterday I went to a fundraiser to support the new Maryland law extending marriage to same-sex couples. As I wrote out my check, I suddenly stopped and thought how archaic the whole thing felt. How, in the year 2012, could this struggle for equal rights still be going on? It felt ridiculous.  


Over two hundred years ago, the founding fathers of the new United States declared independence.  In doing so, they said that they found certain truths to be "self-evident."  Namely, that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." 


The last two hundred years have been a steady struggle to realize the ideal set out by our founding fathers.  In one sense, the progress we have made is heartening; whatever our country's faults, it has shone a light for equal rights for the whole world to see, and in doing so it has been an inspiration for many.  But in another sense, it is disheartening to see how long it has taken for slaves, women, blacks, and now same-sex couples to attain the rights that they deserved all along. 

There will be bumps in the road and political and legal setbacks for the marriage equality movement in the months and years ahead.  But soon, same-sex rights will be secured, and we will all look back in amazement that it took so long.  Those who voted against these rights will feel embarrassed in front of their grandchildren, in the same way those who voted for Jim Crow laws aren't able to look their grandkids in the eye.


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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Economists vs. Entrepreneurs, 5th of July Edition

I was trained mostly in economics, but lately I have been more of an entrepreneur. The mindsets could not be more different, and they color the way I respond to arguments such as the one I blogged about recently.

One of the key concepts you learn in Econ 101 is tradeoffs.  Basically, if you get more of one thing, you generally have to take less of another thing to compensate.  Diagram I below shows a curve called a Production Possibility Frontier.   The idea is that if you are anywhere on the curve, you face a tradeoff.  For example, if you are at B, you can have more production, but in return you must do less maintenance.  (Note that "production" and "maintenance"are just example variables.  We could substitute "work output" and "free time with family" if we wanted.)

Optimistic economists assume that we are at point D, not point A or B. If you are at D, then you can have both more work output and free time if you work more efficiently.  Much of the work I did as an economist at the World Bank was helping advise countries on how to get from point D to somewhere on the possibility frontier.  But we didn't know how to get to point C, which lies beyond the frontier.  We noticed that the curve does shift outward over time, as in Diagram II below, but we didn't really understand why, and could not come up with policy prescriptions to make it happen.


Dagram I
Entrepreneurs, by contrast, take things into their own hands and try to invent a new machine, technology, process, or idea that will shift the entire curve outward.  The net result of this is to alleviate the tradeoffs seen in Diagram I (though, of course it is true that a new set of tradeoffs are introduced).  The evolution of smart phones is an oft-used example of this, where more and more features and capacity were invented, reducing tradeoffs significantly.  We can now talk on the phone while surfing the web and using several apps at the same time.  This is a vivid example, but there are many more.

Diagram II
Just because entrepreneurs believe they can shift the curve doesn't make it happen; most entrepreneurs fail repeatedly (I have).  New business ideas fail most of the time - 58 times for every success, by one measure.  But entrepreneurs don't give up.  They just keep trying again and again. And when they succeed, they push the possibility frontier outwards, bit by bit.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 28: "Mood"

Mood and me, 1998.
One hundred and three years ago yesterday, my mom's mother, Neima Linnea Lepisto Johnson, was born.  Her parents were Finnish immigrants to the Fall River, MA area in the early 1900s. The Finnish word for Grandmother is "Mummu," which we shortened over time to "Mood."

Yesterday, Mood died in her sleep at her nursing home in Manchester, NH, where she had been a resident for many years.

One of my first memories of Mood was when she and my grandfather ("Opa" - the son of Swedish immigrants) arrived at our house in Leitchfield, KY by car in summer of 1967 or '68.  We ran out into the yard to greet them, and she opened the trunk and pulled out a croquet set.  We were overjoyed, and we played with that set for many years.  There are probably pieces of it still in my mom's basement somewhere.

Her visits were always a delight.  On one trip, she taught me how to play the piano (I remember, in particular, "See the witch / Fly through space / On the moon she has a base...").  On another, she taught me how to knit (though she later discouraged me from continuing, telling me that it was for girls!).

There has been a lot of talk lately about the importance of persistence in life.  I didn't appreciate how much Mood embodied that lesson until I ran across her report card from 1923-24.  She was struggling in the first reporting period (Sept-Oct), maybe because her father had died.  But look what happened by the end of the year (click to enlarge).  By any measure, Mood was a straight-A grandmother.





Monday, July 02, 2012

What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Having it All

Watch a political talk show on TV, and chances are you will see people talking - often yelling - past each other.  They don't actually listen to what the others are saying, because their main objective is to score points, win the argument, or advance an agenda.  Rarely do you hear the words "Oh, I see what you are saying - that's a fair point.  In fact, because of what you just said, I want to modify my stance to better reflect reality."

I was reminded of this when I read all the hullabaloo surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent piece in the Atlantic about the impediments to women "having it all."  This followed on the heels of Sheryl Sandberg's speech last year exhorting women to step up to the plate and make the effort and sacrifices necessary to rise the the most senior positions in business and government.

Slaughter's piece resonated with a lot of women, because she talked candidly about the challenges that even she (as a privileged woman) faced in playing at the A level in the foreign policy arena in Washington.  She pointed out how much more severe the tradeoffs are for the vast majority of less well-off women who aim for professional achievement as well as having a family.  She ended with thoughts on how some changes in work practices and norms could help alleviate some of the tradeoffs.

Other readers were furious; they read the article differently.  Lori Gottlieb, for example, perceived Slaughter as arguing (some even said "whining") that women should be able to have it all without making tradeoffs.  Friends of mine whose opinion I respect a lot, such as Bill Easterly, had the same reaction, and many pointed out that men have to make tradeoffs as well. Susan Chira, a senior executive at the New York Times, weighed in too.

Clive Crook (who falls into the Gottlieb camp) was the only one I heard make a sensible suggestion to advance the conversation.  He found himself at the Aspen Ideas Festival with both Slaughter and Gottlieb, and he wondered why Slaughter couldn't be interviewed by Gottlieb instead of by Katie Couric, who was scheduled to do it.  Aspen is the type of place where interviews are often actual conversations, so a real opportunity was missed.

Contrast this with what happened after Isaac Asimov wrote an article criticizing Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, for scientific inaccuracies in the script.  Roddenberry responded, sharply at first, acknowledging some of the points but also telling Asimov how hard it was to get Star Trek on TV in the first place, and arguing that some compromises were necessary to make it onto the airwaves at all.  Instead of devolving into a pissing match, the relationship with Asimov and Roddenberry evolved into a friendship and even collaboration on, for example, the interplay between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as the series matured.

Real conversations don't always lead to kumbaya.  Far from it.  Instead, they sharpen and illuminate differences, and they shed light on the topic from new angles.  Best of all, good conversations can generate new alternatives that neither side had previously thought of.  Clive Crook is a superb host of such generative conversations on a range of topics.  What if The Atlantic convened Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Lori Gottlieb in a conversation led (and prodded along) by Clive?  Now that would be an event worth waiting in line to watch.

-------
*Disclosure:  I know Slaughter, Easterly, and Crook; I have met Sandberg a couple of times. I have never met Lori Gottlieb, but I have read articles excerpted from her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Putting Misfits Together - Joi Ito


Joi Ito
It really literally, not jokingly, but literally are the people who are misfits, who can't fit in anywhere else.... What's interesting is, when you put this collection of misfits together, you get this really interesting capability.
That's Joi Ito, the new head of MIT Media Lab, in an excellent interview at Edge.org.  Joi goes on to summarize the new state of innovation:
In the old days, you'd have to have an idea and then you'd write a proposal for a grant or a VC, and then you'd raise the money, you'd plan the thing, you would hire the people and build it. Today, what you do is you build the thing, you raise the money and then you figure out the plan and then you figure out the business model. It's completely the opposite, you don't have to ask permission to innovate anymore.
He then goes on to make what may be the key and most novel observation of the interview:
The pivot that we need to make at the Media Lab, and which is sort of happening at the student level already, is stop focusing on things and start focusing on the network. Stop focusing on individuals and start focusing on communities. Stop focusing on top-down and focus more on bottom-up. Stop focusing on single experts and start focusing on the Cloud. There's a bunch of fundamental changes that the Internet has brought to the nature of innovation, the nature of society.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 27: Donna Callejon

Donna Callejon
"Dennis, let me introduce you to your next Chief Business Officer."

The speaker was Bob Dunn, then head of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).  The place was the World Economic Forum offices in Geneva. The date was sometime in 2003. And the person Bob was introducing me to was Donna Callejon.

"Um, well, hello, Donna," I replied, as Bob melted off into the crowd.  I had no idea what to say or do, so I asked her about her past career.  Donna had worked for fifteen years in the financial services industry, rising high in the management team of Fannie Mae (in the good Fannie Mae days!).  In that capacity, she had been on the board of BSR. After a while, she decided she needed to take a breather from her work and reassess the next stage of her career and life.  She wanted to spend more time pursuing meaning rather than just money.

"Well, we have plenty of meaning at GlobalGiving," I replied (which was a good thing, since we had almost no money).  Let's get together when we are both back in DC.

A couple of weeks later Donna came by the office for more discussions, met Mari, and very shortly thereafter joined the team. Mari and I were so happy, since Donna was the first "adult" we had been able to attract to to the team on a full-time basis.  (We had a lot of outstanding younger folks, but they had much less operational experience and no managerial experience).

At the beginning, Donna said she did not want to work full time, since she was still burned out from her previous job.  We had no choice but to say fine, and then we found out that Donna's version of part-time work was more intense than most people's definition of full time.  Over time, she took on all sorts of roles, from chief business officer to chief operating officer to chief bottle washer and cheerleader - basically whatever needed to get done, Donna would do.

At one stage, a successful entrepreneur tried to lure her away for his new business-process start up.  Donna was flattered but turned him down - a decision that cost Donna a lot of money when the company was later sold for millions of dollars.

GlobalGiving is now thriving and is the world's biggest aid and philanthropy platform, but we were not an overnight success story.  We faced many tough challenges in the early years.  Things frequently looked grim; we often did not take a paycheck, and it all sometimes seemed overwhelming.  Those were the periods when Donna showed her true mettle.  The more intractable the situation appeared, the more determined Donna became.  "We just have to succeed," was our joint mantra.  And we always ended up pulling through, thanks in no small part to Donna's drive and dedication.

For that introduction in 2003, I am thankful to Bob Dunn.  And for everything that Donna has done over the past many years, I could not be more grateful.

Donna recently celebrated a big birthday.  I won't tell you which one it is, although I can reveal that it has the number "5" in it.  Happy birthday, Donna.

Monday, April 30, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 26: Doris Betts

In 1980, I took a writing course with Doris Betts at UNC-Chapel Hill.  The first day of class she told us "The most important thing for a writer is to open your eyes."

She paused for a second and looked around the room.  She stopped and looked straight at me. "And keep them open," she said.

Doris Betts was a great lady, a great professor, a great writer.  I never turned out to be much of a writer myself, but I have tried to keep in mind what she told me to do.  And I wish I had told her thank you before she died on April 21.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 25: Pierre Omidyar

Pierre Omidyar
"This could be just like eBay.  You should do it."

Well, it didn't turn out exactly like eBay, but it has turned out pretty well.

About a dozen years ago, Esther Dyson invited me to one of her famous PC Forum Conferences, and she introduced me to Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

At that time, I was considering leaving the World Bank to start what is now GlobalGiving with Mari.  Although I was excited, I was also scared to death - I couldn't decide whether the whole idea was brilliant or incredibly naive.  Pierre listened to what I was considering and immediately told me to do it.

"People also told me that eBay would never work," he said.  "They were certain that total strangers would never trust each other enough to buy and sell things over the internet. But they were wrong. You have to do this, Dennis."

As I look back over a decade later, I realize how important that early conversation was to me.  Pierre and Pam Omidyar provided an initial small grant to help us with start-up costs, and then they provided significantly more resources for scaling up through his Omidyar Network.  Thanks to that support, GlobalGiving has now reached scale and financial sustainability.  We have helped mobilize about $100 million, with hundreds of thousands of individual donors and innovative companies supporting 6,000 projects in over 130 countries.

For all of that, Pierre, and especially for that initial conversation, I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 24: Lesly Higgins

Lesly Higgins
A while ago, when I was coming up on ten years as CEO of GlobalGiving, I called Debra Dunn to tell her I thought I should begin the process of handing over the baton.  I did not want GlobalGiving to suffer the same fate as so many other successful start-ups - founderitis - which I thought would undermine our long-term impact.

"So what will you do after GlobalGiving?" Debra asked me.

"I have no idea," I replied.  "I have thought about nothing else except GlobalGiving for the past ten years.  It's been my life and my identity.  Maybe I will just get on a sailboat and sail around the world."

"Well, you could do that.  Or you could call Lesly Higgins."

"Who?"

"Lesly Higgins.  She specializes in situations like yours.  Oftentimes when founders think about stepping down, they find themselves with all sorts of contradictory emotions.  Sometimes they become bulls in china shops in their own organizations.  Sometimes they can't leave.   Sometimes they leave but can't figure out what to do next and get really depressed..."

"Okay, okay, I get the picture," I told Debra.  "Maybe I will contact her some day."

Debra did not respond.  But fortunately she knows me - and my type.  So behind the scenes she contacted Lesly and had her be in touch with me.  Over the following year, Lesly and spoke in person or by video chat a couple of times a month.  Debra was right: as I moved toward transitioning out of my CEO role, I had all sorts of emotions.  Lesly listened, prodded, nodded, argued, and sometimes was just silent as I blew off steam (I hate that silence).  It was not an easy time, but working with Lesly made it immeasurably more productive.

And lo and behold, the transition went well.  I took some time off (though not a year, and not on a sailboat), and then I took up some very enjoyable and challenging posts teaching at Princeton, being Global Entrepreneur in Residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, and consulting to organizations who are trying to make big changes.  And maybe most importantly, GlobalGiving (where I still sit on the board) has been thriving.

For all of that, I am extremely grateful.  Thank you, Lesly.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 23: Jed Emerson


Jed Emerson
"The most important thing is the music.  It's all about the music," Jed insisted.  

The scene was Colorado, many years ago.  I was in a deep funk, because GlobalGiving, which had just launched, was going nowhere fast.  I was run down, bleeding cash, and almost ready to throw in the towel.  At some point, I met this guy named Jed Emerson, and he invited me to come out to visit his new place in the wilds of Colorado.  

Jed had an interesting background running a nonprofit and teaching, but he was not a potential funder or user of the site, and I had no direct business reason for going.  As far as I could tell he was just some wild man with ideas about things like blended value.  

But something told me I should get on the plane anyway, and Mari told me it would do me good to get the heck out of Dodge, so I did.

Jed and I spent a couple of days in the deep snow in the outback of Colorado doing nothing in particular - mostly walking his dogs in the freezing cold and shooting the breeze and talking about relationships gone bad.  And listening to music.  Jed was all over the heavy metal stuff - groups like Stone Temple Pilots and The Marvins -  which he listened to at high volume while writing his books and articles. 

As I was flying back to DC, I thought to myself, "Well, crap, I have to keep going.  I can't give up now."  I had no blinding insight or a huge surge of energy. The feeling was more subtle.  But I knew I could not quit.  

So I went back to DC and started listening to more music.  Jed's tastes were a little heavy for me (please don't tell him), but I did start cranking up the Flaming Lips and My Morning Jacket, and the music helped keep me going.  I haven't seen Jed much over the past ten years, but I sure have listened to a lot more music. (Right now I'm listening to Steve Earle.)

Yesterday, I was on a conference call with Jed, and I thought back to that trip to Colorado, and how far things have come over the past decade.  It wasn't possible on the call to explain to Jed how pivotal that trip was for me.  Or to tell him that GlobalGiving has now mobilized nearly $100 million from 250,000 donors to build the platform and fund 5,000 projects in 130 countries.  Or that we broke even in 2011.

So let me say this here, loud and clear: Thank you, Jed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 22: Tom Rautenberg

Tom Rautenberg, 1954-2012
Tom Rautenberg was a Johnny Appleseed for good.  

Sometime around late 2001 or early 2002 (even before we had launched the site, as I recall), Tom walked in the door at GlobalGiving to offer his help.  He spent a couple of hours talking with us about what we hoped to achieve, and then he left.  

A couple of weeks later, he showed up again.  He was full of ideas and encouragement and connections, but he did not seem to want anything in return.  

In fact, every time he came, he would take us to a good lunch (usually a steak or gourmet hamburger), saying that start-up entrepreneurs needed a square meal.  He never asked for money (we had none, in any case), and the more he learned about us the more people he put us in touch with.  Several of those introductions led to key initiatives and partnerships for us over the years.

Tom had an amazing and varied career before we met him.  He had a degree in intellectual history, and then he worked on complex adaptive systems and nuclear negotiation theory at Berkeley and Brown.  Subsequently he shifted gears and founded a boutique investment firm specializing in the movie, communications, and education industries.  Then in the late 1990s, he took a sabbatical to work with the State of the World Forum.  Later he went on to work with Booz Allen, Generon, and Synergos, among others, and he was an informal advisor to many others.

One day I said "Tom, so tell me, what's this all about? "

"What do you mean?" he replied.

"Well, you show up here every month or two and buck up our spirits and help us think through things, even though you don't work here.  Why do you do it?"

"Dennis, listen: I have been lucky in life, and I want to give back.  You guys are helping me give back by letting me help you.  Thank you for letting me do it."

Over the following years, we met less frequently, but each time we would have lunch.  (I was glad that in more recent years I was in a position to pay!)  Tom seemed to show up whenever we were facing a crisis or major strategic challenge, and each time he gave us ideas, encouragement, and moral support that helped us make it through. 

A month ago, Tom died suddenly while in Aspen helping another group think about what they could do to improve the world.  He was 57.  I had not seen him for a year, and I had a note on my calendar to be in touch with him to set up one of our lunches.  

Last week, I decided to go ahead with the lunch anyway.  I went out to a new hamburger joint and got a burger with all the fixings.  After the waiter brought the food and left, I raised my glass and said, simply:

"Thanks, Tom."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 21: Elizabeth Stefanski

Eli Stefanski
This blog post that Elizabeth Stefanski wrote sums up a lot of what GlobalGiving is about.  What Elizabeth does not fully convey is how central her leadership, work, creativity, and never-say-never attitude was to GlobalGiving in the early days.

Eli joined our fledgling team at a time when we faced what we thought were insurmountable obstacles.  And she surmounted them.  GlobalGiving would probably not exist today - and certainly not be as successful as it is - if not for Eli.

Plus Eli brought to the culture of GlobalGiving an attitude that "even though this is hard, very hard, it also has to be fun, and what the heck let's go out and run a marathon in the middle of all this stress."  That was a real lesson for me.

For all that, and much more: Thank you, Eli!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 20: Ami Dar

Ami Dar
In late 2000, I was in New York City for some meetings when I got a call from Mari, who said "You have to go meet Ami Dar.

"Ami Dar?" I replied, "Who is he?"

"Find a copy of the Chronicle of Philanthropy - he's on the cover,"  she replied.  And so I did (in those days, there were actual magazine stands and shops!)  I read the story right away and then called Ami.

He invited me to his office that afternoon, and we spent a couple of hours talking about what the new thing called the Internet might mean for aid and philanthropy. Ami had started something called Action Without Borders in 1995, whereas Mari and I were just starting to think about launching what is now GlobalGiving.

At that time, there were very few people who understood the concept of what we were hoping to do - much less had any experience implementing something like it.  Ami was already in the process of thinking about the next phase of Action Without Borders, which would go on to become the very well known Idealist.

Fast forward to eleven years later.  I meet a new staff member at GlobalGiving who is terrific.  I say to Mari "Wow, she seems good.  Where did we find her?"

Mari looks at me like I am a moron and says "Idealist, of course - where else?"

Over the years, I have seen Ami here and there.  What strikes me each time I see him is that he is about action, not talk.  Others get more PR, but few get more done than Ami.  He does not go to that many conferences, but when he does you can be sure he will be worth listening to.  Candor, not flattery, is his middle name; he tells it the way it is (and that does not always make other people happy)!

What Ami may not know is how much that first meeting meant to me in terms of giving me the courage to  take the leap into the great unknown and launch GlobalGiving with Mari.  Trailblazers like Ami are few and far between, and they show the rest of us the way.  For that, I am very grateful.





Thursday, February 23, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 19: Angus Deaton

Prof. Angus Deaton
Angus Deaton, who recently received the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award, is in my pantheon of professors.  No one in my graduate school gave me better tools to understand the world than he did.

His class in cost-benefit analysis in 1983 enabled me later in life to hold my own with the world's top experts in the area (and it has informed my skepticism about the current emphasis on metrics in aid and philanthropy).  I regret I did not devote more effort to his econometrics class - but even half my attention gave me more understanding of that discipline than many practitioners have.

In this day and age of one silver bullet after another, Angus stands out as a sober source of intelligent insight and perspective - especially related to the latest fads.

For example, in 2009 he wrote an understated but devastating critique of the exaggerated hype about randomized controlled trials in development aid.  Last year Angus delivered a low-key but serious indictment of the entire foreign aid apparatus, something he and I have both worked with for decades.  (The video is not easy to watch, but it does contain painful truths we all need to grapple with, and I highly recommend it.)

I was lucky enough to get a very good education before I started my working career, and it was professors such as Angus Deaton who gave me the skills to do what I am doing today.  For that, I am exceptionally grateful.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I will Buy More Jawbone

What do great companies do when they make a mistake?  They fix it.  They don't stonewall. They don't send form letters saying "We value customer feedback." They fix the problem.  And when they do, even if it is costly, the returns to them in terms of customer loyalty is huge.

Last year, Jawbone released UP, a highly anticipated "revolutionary" wristband that promised to "track your daily activities and inspire you to be live a healthier lifestyle."  The initial reactions were positive - the wristband itself is stunningly beautiful, and the features included were very cool.  Some users loved it. But others found fatal and/or highly annoying flaws in the details of its design and functioning, and they made an uproar about it.

In response, Jawbone did not hunker down.  Jawbone did not go into denial, or say that the problems were due to user error or misunderstanding.  Instead, Hosain Rahman, Jawbone's CEO, took the extraordinary step of posting a letter on the web site that said, in part: "While many of you continue to enjoy the UP experience, we know that some of you have experienced issues...Given our commitment to delivering the highest quality products, this is unacceptable, and you have our deepest apologies."

But he did not stop there.  He then said the following:


When you see a company do this, you know that it is on the right track for the future.  You want to buy more of their products.  I just bought a Jambox speaker from them with my refund.  And who knows, I may just buy some stock in the company.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 18: Morehead Foundation

Chuck Lovelace
This past year I have been spending a couple of days a month at UNC-Chapel Hill as "Global Social Entrepreneur in Residence."  It's a pleasure to be able to give back a little bit to my alma mater.  This place is bursting with creativity and energy.  The students, smart and motivated, are not waiting for permission to launch all sorts of initiatives aimed at improving the world.  The faculty and administration, to their credit, are devoting great energy and resources to supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of the students while also maintaining standards of academic excellence.

My days here are packed with meetings with students seeking advice on their ventures, classes designed to give students the tools needed to succeed , and meetings with faculty who are thinking up new ways to make the soil even more fertile for innovation in Chapel Hill.  Each day I am here makes me prouder to be a Tar Heel.

As I wrote earlier, to the extent that I have achieved anything in life it has been because of the help I have received along the way.  Nothing illustrates this better than the scholarship I received from the Morehead-Cain Foundation that brought me to UNC in 1979.  The Foundation paid not only my tuition and living expenses but also provided resources for me to do several internships - including an extended stint in Kenya and Nepal - that put me on the path I have been on my entire professional career in international development.

Megan Mazzocchi
Tomorrow I will spend a bit of time at the Foundation offices and get a chance to see Chuck Lovelace, the Executive Director, and Megan Mazzocchi, Associate Director.  They have both helped steward the Foundation since the mid 1980s, through financial times both thick and thin. Like the University itself, the Foundation is thriving now, better than at any time in its history, and Chuck and Megan (together with the extraordinary Trustees and benefactors) deserve huge credit for what they have achieved.

But above all, they deserve my thanks.  I hope I will live long enough to repay what they and others at the Foundation have done for me.



Monday, January 30, 2012

Who moved my AYT?

"$40,000 per month?  You must be joking."

I am happy our neighborhood in Washington DC is thriving.  Before we moved here, it used to be too dangerous to walk here, even during the day.  It is now a happening place, with all sorts of restaurants, theaters, and places to hear live music.  Fortunately, it remains ethnically and socio-economically diverse.  It's still edgy (there is too much crime), but I like it.

Nonetheless, development brings costs, as well all know.  I have had friends in the neighborhood who have had to move out because the rents have risen.  And some of the funkier businesses have gone away.  I had thought about this mostly in the abstract until the other day when I drove over to 14th St to get a tire fixed only to find my neighborhood garage closed.  One of the managers was there packing things away.  When I asked him why he was leaving, he said:

"When our lease came up, they raised our rent from $14,000 per month to $40,000 per month."

$40,000 per month? You must be joking," I replied.

"We might have been able to pay a bit more, but not triple.  There was no way."

Wow.  $40,000 per month.  That puts some numbers around the whole phenomenon, doesn't it?


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Diffusion of Innovation - Prius Edition

Last week I got in a taxi at Union Station here in Washington, DC and was surprised that it was a Toyota Prius.  Though I like the efficiency of the Prius, what I really appreciate is the ride - so much better than the rickety old jalopies typically lying in wait for passengers at the station.

I asked the driver whether he liked the car, and he replied immediately "Love it. Just love it."  I asked him about gas mileage, and he said that he gets good mileage in the winter, but he takes a hit in the summer.  "What does that mean exactly?" I asked.  "Well, in the winter I get about 52 miles a gallon, but in the summer it goes down to 47 or 48."

When I expressed my amazement, he told me that he saves $1,000 per month in fuel costs alone compared to the old beat-up sedan he used to drive. "Good lord, if that's the case, then why don't all drivers use hybrid cars?" I asked. "Two reasons," he replied.  "First, most people believe that hybrid cars break down a lot and are expensive to maintain.  And second, they can buy a beat up car for $700, whereas this one costs $24,000 new."

"Actually," he went on, "this car has needed nothing but oil changes in the two years since I have had it.  My old car was in the shop for expensive repairs every month or two - and I couldn't drive it during that period.  So this car is actually cheaper.  With the fuel savings alone, I can pay off the car in two years, and that doesn't even count the repair costs I avoided.  And even after my car is paid off, it is still worth $10,000 or more."

I sat there with my economist's hat on, wondering why all taxis in Washington weren't hybrids.

"They'll come," said the driver, reading my mind.  "It just takes time for people to realize what a good deal they are."


Monday, January 09, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 17: The GlobalGiving Team

GlobalGiving is catalyzing a global market for ideas, information, and money that democratizes aid and philanthropy.  In the process, the unbelievable team there has helped 5,200 qualified organizations in 129 countries raise $57 million from 248,000 donors and some of the world's most innovative companies and foundations.  (And this does not include the $15 million they have helped Pepsi distribute to hundreds of US-based organizations.)

I could go on and on about their achievements, tenacity, and exploits.  Or about the pathbreaking feedback loops they are creating that provide incentives for ever-increasing quality and impact.  Or...

But instead, I just want to show the video below, which is worth a thousand words and more.  As we begin a new year, I want to say thanks to them all.  What a pleasure and privilege it has been to work with you.  And the best is yet to come.


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 16: Sombit Mishra

Many years ago, we hired a young guy named Sombit Mishra.  He brought to GlobalGiving a nice three-piece suit but pretty much zero experience.  In those days, we had little money and a lot of unskilled labor.

Shortly thereafter, I was out in Palo Alto at the offices of Kleiner Perkins talking with our advisor Randy Komisar.  "Do you have a dashboard for keeping track of your progress against targets?" he asked. "Of course we do," I replied. "I'll send it to you when I get back."

Upon my return to Washington, I called Sombit into a conference room and said, "Sombit, I want you to put together a dashboard for us." His bottom lip trembled, and he said nothing.  Finally: "What's a dashboard?"  "It's progress against targets," I replied. "Just do what you think makes sense, but be ready with a draft for the staff meeting next week."

Thus was born the GlobalGiving dashboard, which has been the centerpiece of GlobalGiving's weekly staff meetings for the past eight years.  The dashboard started off crudely, but Sombit made steady improvements.  Every week after the staff meeting I gave him feedback and pushed him to create analytics that he had no experience with. In retrospect, I was a little hard on him - I probably put him under a little too much stress, which I regret.  But Sombit never said never.  Head down, he pushed ahead.

After a couple of years, Sombit went on to business school at MIT and founded a company, EveryFit, of which he is now CEO.  But he left behind at GlobalGiving an exceptional legacy of focus and discipline.  When he created our dashboard, we had facilitated just a few hundred thousand dollars of donations.  We closed the year 2011 with a cumulative total of over $85 million raised for 5,000 organizations in 129 countries.

All of us owe Sombit a tremendous debt of gratitude. As the year 2012 opens, I want to say this publicly:  Thank you.